Deaths in Custody

Australia's shame

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up 2.8% of the Australian population, yet they account for 28% of Australia’s prison population.

Indigenous adults are 15 times more likely to be incarcerated than non-Indigenous Australians, and aboriginal juveniles  26 times more likely.

This makes First Australians the most incarcerated people on the planet, with Indigenous women being the fastest-growing prison population.

Since the Royal Commission in 1991 there have been at least 438 Indigenous deaths in custody (both prison and police).

These include from natural causes yet a significant number show inadequate medical care. Calls have been made for greater scrutiny of the justice system, in particular regarding avoidable deaths, such as the death of Ms Dhu, Tanya Day and David Dungay.

Ms Dhu was taken into police custody for an unpaid fine after police responded to her call about her partner violating an apprehended violence order in 2014. She shortly died in police custody in South Hedland prison after 'unprofessional and inhumane' treatment by the police, the inquest heard.

Tanya Day, 55, a Yorta Yorta woman sustained a fatal injury after she fell, unnoticed, in police custody on 5 December 2017 in Melbourne. She was arrested after falling asleep on a train from Echuca to Melbourne for the offence of being found drunk in public. Officers told the coronial inquest they were acting out of concern for her welfare, yet only one officer considered – then dismissed – seeking medical treatment. The coroner Caitlin English said: “Ms Day’s death was clearly preventable had she not been arrested and taken into custody.”

As the Black Lives Matter Movement swept across the world, the death of George Floyd in America was a painful echo of the death of David Dungay in New South Wales in December 2015. The 22 year-old diabetic Dunghutti man said “I can’t breathe” 12 times before he died while being restrained by five prison guards after refusing to stop eating a packet of biscuits.

To which an officer replied: “If you can talk, you can breathe”.

The movement has brought renewed media attention to the plight of Australia's Aboriginal people, triggering large protests nationwide.

The lack of reliable statistics was a recurring theme of the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody. Recommendation 41, under Adequacy of Information, called for states and territories to keep a statistical database documenting all deaths in custody and report annually to parliament.

The national deaths in custody program was established at the Australian Institute of Criminology (AIC) in 1992 to fulfil this role and reports every one to two years. The two latest reports were published in April 2019 and covered the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years. Of the 74 deaths in custody recorded by the AIC in 2016-17, 16 were Indigenous people.

Up to date information on deaths in custody is difficult to find; individual agencies can be reluctant to provide statistics to media organisations or researchers. This creates a gap in public knowledge, made worse by increasing delays in having public inquests.

Common issues raised in coronial reports:

Whether a person received medical care prior to their death;

Whether they were denied care that the coroner found they ought to have received.

If there was documented evidence of cognitive impairment or mental illness;

Whether the individual had alcohol or non-prescribed drugs in their system;

Whether the agency responsible followed all the appropriate procedures.

Whether the agency responsible issued any reprimands in connection to the case;

Whether anyone from the agency responsible was charged with a crime in connection to the death in custody.

Elaine Pearson, Australia Director Human Rights Watch.

Elaine Pearson, Australia Director Human Rights Watch.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar reminded Australians that systemic racism is a prevalent issue in Australia, and not just seen across the Pacific.

She said: "We continue to see the over-policing of Australian Indigenous people. Many are introduced to the justice system at a young age and remain in its grip for life. Over incarceration is arguably the most prominent example of generational and systemic discrimination.
“As we watch with concern at the developments in the USA, we should reflect on the task that remains at hand in Australia and undertake the long overdue reforms to our own justice system.
“For almost 30 years, we have referred to the Royal Commission and its recommendations, many that remain unimplemented. Meanwhile, Indigenous people continue to die in our so-called justice system."
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner June Oscar.

One of the 339 recommendations made in the 1991 Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody was an end to issuing arrest warrants for unpaid fines.

Western Australia, the only state to regularly imprison those unable to pay fines, finally passed legislation in 2019 to end the controversial imprisonment.

The death in custody of Yamatji woman Ms Dhu in 2014 was the 'catalyst' for the reform.

Tane Chatfield, 22, died at Tamworth Correctional Centre in September 2017 after being held on remand for two years. He was found unresponsive in his cell with marks on his neck.

At the time, Mr Chatfield's death was ruled a suicide but his family found this difficult to believe.

He finally had an inquest on 13th July 2020 - three years later. The coroner said he may have suffered multiple seizures before he died.

Nurse unit manager Janeen Adams, who attended to Mr Chatfield on his return to prison from hospital, told the inquest she was not made aware he had suffered multiple seizures the previous night. She directed him to rest alone.

Ms Adams said Mr Chatifield appeared "alert and calm", and provided "appropriate" answers to questions.

Bereaved mother, Nioka Chatfield, speaks at Sydney's Invasion Day March 2020 about losing her son Tane in 2017.

On the news of George Floyd's death prime minister Scott Morrison told a Sydney radio station he was glad such things didn’t happen in Australia.

He said: “As upsetting and terrible that the murder that took place [is] – and it is shocking, that also just made me cringe – I just think to myself how wonderful a country is Australia."

“There’s no need to import things happening in other countries here to Australia. Australia is not the United States.”

However, federal Indigenous affairs minister Ken Wyatt later commented he was working with the Coalition of Aboriginal and Islander peak organisations on “more ambitious” incarceration and detention targets in a refreshed Closing the Gap agreement - a government strategy aiming to reduce disadvantages among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people - at the end of July.

Wyatt emphasised that the responsibility for reducing deaths in custody is shared with the different states, which have responsibility for police and jails.

More than numbers


July, Unknown, WA

6 June, Unknown, Male, 40, WA

29 March, Unknown, Male, 30, VIC

21 March, TC, Female, 40, QLD

02 Jan, Veronica Marie Nelson Walker, Female, 37, VIC


09 Nov, Kumanjayi Walker, Male, 19, NT

06 Nov, Unknown, Male, 20, NSW

30 Oct, RN, Male, 39, WA

17 Sept, Joyce Clarke, Female, 37, WA

12 June, JB, Male, 30, WA

09 April, Cherdeena Wynne, Female, 26, WA

14 March, Tafari Walton, Male, 21, NSW

11 Feb, Alf Deon Eades,Male, 46, WA


11 Sept, CD, Male, 16, WA

10 Sept, TS, Male, 17, WA

01 Sept, Nathan Reynolds, Male, 36, NSW

29 June, DK, Male, 34, WA

03 May, Mr Yeeda, Male, 19, WA

10 Feb, TK, Male, 39, QLD

07 Feb, Patrick Fisher, Male, 31, NSW

03 Feb, JH, Male, 23, NSW


22 Dec, Tanya Louise Day, Female, 55, VIC

04 Dec, TMH, Male, 47, WA

22 Sept, Tane Richard Chatfield, Male, 22, NSW

22 August, KG, Male, 47, SA

08 August, JT, Male, 39, NT

04 July, EJW, Male, 35, NSW

25 June, Raymond Noel Lindsay Thomas, Male, 29, VIC

26 May, PR, Male, 50, SA

12 May, Chad Riley, Male, 40, WA

29 March, TAS, Male, 35, NSW

01 March, Jordan Robert Anderson, Male, 23, WA

14 Jan, RPN, Male, 62, NT


14 Dec, KJ, Male, 35, NT

10 Dec, SB, Female, 44, WA

26 Sept, Wayne Fella Morrison, Male, 29, SA

16 Sept, JBM, Male, 44, NT

03 Sept, GLW, Male, 41, VIC

25 August, VB, Male, 31, NT

08 August, EJM, Male, 69, QLD

19 July, Rebecca Maher, Female, 36, NSW

18 June, Fred, Male, 35, WA

27 May, Steven Freeman, Male, 25, ACT

14 May, WMM, Male, 58, QLD

05 April, RJG, Male, 41, NT

04 April, GWVA, Male, 31, SA

30 March, EY, Male, 70, NT

27 Feb, PMB, Male, 42, QLD

20 Feb, JR, Male, 37, NT

26 Jan, CGG, Male, 56, WA 2015

29 Dec, David Dungay Jr, Male, 26, NSW

16 Dec, Mr Jackamarra, Male, 36, WA

02 Dec, AAU, Female, 25, WA

02 Dec, KE, Male, 24, WA

11 Nov, MFTM, Female, 45, NT

02 Nov, Mr Cameron, Male, 26, WA

02 Oct, Shaun Charles Coolwell, Male, 33, QLD

08 Sept, Mr Bell, Male, 28, WA

29 August, JFW, Male, 34, WA

15 August, KJS, Male, 65, NT

05 August, AB, Male, 59, WA

20 June, RB, Male, 40, NT

21 May, Kumanjayi Langdon, Male, 59, NT

10 May, VJR, Male, 47, NSW

09 May, GRA, Male, 48, QLD

16 April, KNK, Male, 68, SA

20 Feb, BBN, Male, 56, NT

12 Feb, CWM, Male, 53, NT

11 Feb, AB, Male, 50, NSW


17 Dec, JLM, Male, 26, ACT

03 Dec, JAA, Male, 79, NT

13 Nov, KMCN, Female, 23, WA

08 Nov, TMM, Male, 54, QLD

31 Oct, KB, Female, 46, NT

25 Oct, RB, Male, 60, NSW

22 Oct, Mr Wallam, Male, 31, WA

04 August, Ms Dhu, Female, 22, WA

10 July, LJR, Male, 45, VIC

27 March, DW, Male, 28, NT

25 Feb, MRB, Male, 57, QLD

08 Feb, KJT, Male, 50, NT

18 Jan, KM, Male, 49, NT


28 Dec, FWD, Male, 43, NSW

26 Dec, JKP, Male, 62, QLD

21 Dec, RCG, Male, 49, WA

02 Nov, NRR, Male, 37, QLD

02 Nov, VBVC, Male, 44, QLD

06 Oct, GWR, Male, 15, WA

17 August, VAC, Male, 63, NT

09 July, RS, Male, 39, NT

14 April, DWW, Male, 31, NSW

15 March, MJK, Male, 48, WA

06 March, Jayden Stafford Bennell, Male, 20, WA

02 Feb, JW, Male, 40, SA

19 Jan, Bud Lord, Male, 39, NSW


24 Dec, KM, Female, 26, NT

23 Dec, KO, Male, 30, NT

22 Dec, KA, Female, 32, NT

30 Nov, Ms Mandijarra, Female, 44, WA

24 Nov, GAM, Male, 48, QLD

07 Nov, CKH, Male, 38, QLD

02 Nov, JJR, Male, 20, WA

26 Sept, DH, Male, 28, NT

25 August, Mr Toby, Male, 45, WA

15 August, RDH, Male, 51, QLD

07 August, TCW, Male, 37, WA

16 June, PB, Female, 21, NSW

11 April, P, Female, 13, QLD

07 April, CN, Male, 26, NT

07 April, KT, Female, 42, NT

03 April, PAC, Male, 55, NT

04 Jan, Kwementyaye Briscoe, Male, 27, NT


03 Nov, EJB, Male, 34, NT

26 Oct, FJV, Male, 26, QLD

24 Oct, Mr Bropho, Male, 81, WA

05 Oct, JLG, Male, 30, SA

03 Sept, DJJ, Male, 0, NSW

14 August, RGW, Male, 52, WA

10 June, MEO, Female, 16, QLD

17 April, HJM, Male, 50, QLD

14 April, BAW, Male, 15, WA

12 March, BN, Male, 33, NT

08 Jan, DJP, Male, 51, WA


24 Nov, PPH, Male, 38, WA

24 Nov, Name suppressed, Male, 20, NSW

11 Nov, Mark Edward Mason, Male, 44, NSW

15 October, KM, Male, 51, NT

08 Oct, SAF, Male, 37, NT

18 September, TLI, Female, 37, QLD

15 Sept, AT, Female, 34, WA

23 August, KJC, Male, 53, VIC

11 August, DJ, Male, 33, NT

12 July, CAS, Male, 30, SA

04 July, ARC, Male, 28, WA

01 June, LJ, Male, 18, NSW

14 May, MMT, Male, 53, QLD

15 April, LV, Male, 27, QLD

12 April, GMC, Male, 57, QLD

22 March, GRW, Male, 39, WA

14 March, DDW, Male, 33, WA

20 Feb, SDC, Male, 18, QLD

14 Feb, BWE, Male, 53, WA

07 Feb, KS, Female, 13, WA

19 Jan, TJ, Male, 41, WA

07 Jan, SWG, Male, 23, NT


23 July, RH, Male, 59, QLD

03 July, DRN, Male, 50, WA

12 June, TAC, Male, 40, QLD

25 April, VNR, Male, 35, SA

16 April, GR, Male, 39, NT

07 April, KB, Male, 18, SA

10 Jan, CT, Male, 32, NT


30 Dec, HN, Male, 24, WA

17 Dec, JET, Male, 64, QLD

20 Sept, AMT, Male, 25, WA

18 Sept, JWR, Male, 30, WA

17 Sept, ZN, Male, 22, NT

22 August, CWP, Male, 22, NT

22 August, IFW, Male, 45, WA

18 August, SL, Male, 32, WA

21 June, DN, Male, 40, WA

25 May, PRJ, Male, 49, NT

02 March, AE, Male, 63, WA

27 Jan, Mr Ward, Male, 46, WA

06 Jan, RTO, Male, 49, QLD

01 Jan, DG, Male, 39, NT

This data was collected from coronial reports, the Guardian Australia's database and through non-profitable organisations.